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The Real South Carolina—Once Around The Palmetto State

Alan Paulsen
January 31, 2014
Filed under Featured Great Road, Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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Sunflowers Savannah River National Scenic Highway

Landscape along the Savannah River National Scenic Highway. (Photos by Alan Paulsen)

Frankly, I don’t understand why a rally was ever held in Myrtle Beach. The resort town is a congested strand with residents and police who dislike us motorcyclists, perhaps not without just cause. Even the helpful ladies in the Welcome Center at the state border suggested I avoid the place, and gave me a map that showed how to skirt the town.

South Carolina Road Signs

Need more be said?

The bypass led me to Murrells Inlet and Mickey Spillane Waterfront Highway. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought, recognizing the creator of hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer. This inlet road is a seafood trail that brought me to Russell’s, a landmark, it turns out, where owner Russell himself greets every customer. Within is a veritable enclave of inlet memorabilia. Russell saw me ride up and sat to chat about his own mount while I noshed on hushpuppies served as a free side dish. Welcome to the real South Carolina!

On U.S. Route 17, west of Murrells Inlet, I encountered Brookgreen Gardens, a nature and wildlife preserve displaying the natural history of what is hereabouts called Lowcountry—essentially the marshes, inlets and Sea Islands that make up coastal South Carolina. Rice cultivation had been an integral part of the Lowcountry economy, and is exhibited on the acreage at Brookgreen. In the nearby village of Georgetown there is even a rice museum, so I proceeded on.

Brookgreen Gardens

he landscaping and statuary at Brookgreen Gardens makes it a National Historic Landmark.

I found the Rice Museum located below an impressive Greek Revival clock tower on Front Street, a downtown aligned with antebellum-era facades. Adjacent Thomas Café is a local institution open since 1929. After tasting their grits, I stepped next door to learn about rice. Cotton and tobacco aside, it was rice that drove the South Carolina lowland agrarian economy until the Civil War ended slavery and deprived plantation owners the workforce necessary to tend the labor-intensive crop. Modern methods ensued, but Hurricane Hugo in 1989 administered the coup de grace to South Carolina’s rice industry. Along Georgetown’s Harborwalk, I came across Francis Marion Park. Marion, the “Swamp Fox” who bedeviled and bewildered the British with Cherokee-style guerilla warfare during the Revolutionary War, grew up around here.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

An impressive array of live oaks forms a canopy on the approach to magnificent Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

Soon U.S. 17 took me through Francis Marion National Forest. I turned onto a lone road to McClellanville, enticed by the sign proclaiming “Tree City USA.” I was immediately tunneling through an avenue of moss-draped live oaks all the way to its terminus in this fishing village of barely 500 folk. I’d passed Graham’s Seafood, est. 1894. At the Intracoastal Waterway sits the Village Museum. The wood of live oaks, I learned, was used by the Colonials for shipbuilding because the thick, bent limbs of the squat trees provided naturally curved timbers for the hull, lending exceptional strength. Cannonballs would bounce off; hence the term “Old Ironsides,” alluding to the USS Constitution.

Boone Hall Plantation offers a more famous boulevard of moss-enveloped oaks as it approaches the mansion seen in many a movie, including the opening of Gone with the Wind. I positioned the bike and freeze-framed the scene for posterity before I was chased off. Apologize afterward, I always say.

Boone Hall Plantation

If Boone Hall Plantation looks familiar, it’s because it served as a focal point in many a movie, including Gone with the Wind.

Skeletal framework shacks line U.S. 17 on the approach to Charleston. Their siding is provided by rows of hanging baskets woven from sweetgrass, combined with palmetto leaves. The art of making sweetgrass baskets was brought to the South Carolina Lowcountry by slaves from West Africa and has been a traditional art form passed on from generation to generation. Now these baskets are highly prized as a part of this area’s heritage, and their prices reflect it. I glided by and diverted to Patriots Point, passing alongside Charleston’s impressive cable-stay bridge over the Cooper River, completed just a few years ago.

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is one of the largest in the nation, home to the carrier Yorktown, a destroyer and a diesel submarine that’s a sister boat to the one I served aboard in the ’60s. Aboard the Yorktown are not only numerous aircraft, but also a haunting Medal of Honor Museum. Boats depart here to Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. I took the excursion and found it edifying. Interestingly, the extensive bombardment upon Fort Sumter was the only Civil War battle fought in South Carolina.

Pinnacle Lake at Table Rock State Park.

Blue Ridge foothills reflect in the early morning stillness of Pinnacle Lake at Table Rock State Park.

I crossed the somewhat intimidating Ravenel Bridge into Charleston, where the steeple of St. Michael’s Church, the city’s oldest, pierces the skyline in exclamation. Cotton and rice made Charleston into the richest city in the South and caused the antebellum era to prosper. Plantations abound here. North of the city, along the Ashley River National Scenic Byway, they line up beneath the moss-threaded live oaks like Gardens of the Gods: Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place.

Table Rock Mountain

Table Rock Mountain exposes its granite dome high above the Carolina Piedmont.

I chose to visit Magnolia Plantation because it’s the oldest and said to be the most beautiful. Two garden bridges here could appear on any scenic calendar or jigsaw puzzle. The nature train took us visitors by cypress-lined swamps that were former rice fields. Numerous alligators basked on inclined planks poking out of the green scum. Wandering dogs don’t last long here, we were told.

I couldn’t pass up visiting one of the Sea Islands, so I diverted off U.S. 17 into Beaufort, South Carolina’s second oldest city, next to Charleston. Nearby Port Royal is a waterfront town emanating authentic Southern charm; however, across the Beaufort River lies Parris Island, the Marine Corps boot camp that kind of invalidates the attractiveness of the area. The Beaufort region is actually comprised of several Sea Islands, and has captivated movie makers who chose various sites throughout to film such notables as The Great Santini, The Big Chill, The Prince of Tides, and the blockbuster, Forrest Gump.

Patriots Point, Charleston

Diesel submarine Clamagore resides with the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Laffey at Patriots Point, Charleston.

I rode to Hunting Island State Park to camp. Trails here lead to the beach, a marsh boardwalk and a 132-foot lighthouse. I downed excellent seafood and brew at Johnson Creek Tavern, lined from floor to ceiling with signed one-dollar bills and autographed photos from the cast and crew of Forrest Gump. Breakfast was provided next door at Marsh Tacky Market Café, named for the wild horses that roam the region.

I had a notion of visiting Hilton Head Island, but again was cautioned against it by knowledgeable Beaufort Isle residents; the “plantations” listed on a map allude to private resort developments, so I proceeded toward Savannah and turned “Upcountry” by way of U.S. Route 321. In the town of Estill, I was stopped cold by the sight of a Bull Durham Tobacco ad spread the length of a brick warehouse. I learned the building was built circa 1910 for cotton storage, but is now used as a conference center and reception hall. Bull Durham used to advertise in ballparks and on buildings throughout the South and East, a la Mail Pouch Tobacco.

palmetto tree

The palmetto tree is South Carolina’s state symbol, as seen on its flag and seal.

Out of Allendale I picked up U.S. Route 278, skirted Augusta, crossed the Savannah River, sideswiped a portion of the 1,200-mile shoreline of Strom Thurmond Lake, and entered the 19th century town square of McCormick. As I traveled farther inland, I learned that cotton was the principal industry driving the region’s economy. Cyrus McCormick invented the cotton reaper and donated land for the town that would bear his name. The town’s old cotton gin was turned into a gristmill and is one of the few remaining mills of its type in the nation, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Alexander Campbell Bridge, South Carolina

This last extant covered bridge in South Carolina is named for Alexander Campbell, who operated a grist mill here.

My route through Sumter National Forest brought me to antebellum Abbeville, a Preserve America Community established in 1758 that’s defined by its brick paved town square, Beaux Arts architecture and historic corner opera house. Statesman John C. Calhoun, congressman, senator, vice president, secretary of war, secretary of state, was born here and had a law office in town.

I rejoined the Savannah River National Scenic Highway at Calhoun Falls and proceeded to the state park of the same name. As far as state parks in South Carolina are concerned, I was discovering that some require the tenter to park and walk to the site, which irks me, as it would any motorcyclist. So I’d first scout the camp to determine if the BMW K 1200 LT could be turned around with the help of reverse. Then I anointed the 850-pound beast a trail machine, floundering over ruts through the woods. My plan, should a park ranger get testy about it, was to apologize and truthfully state that I was a DAV, and hope for the respect generally accorded a veteran of late.

Walhalla is called Gateway to the Blue Ridge, and here is where State Route 11 becomes the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway. The first indication that I had entered the Appalachian foothills was Oconee Station State Historic Site, comprising a military outpost to protect from Indians, and a trading post, both intact stone buildings dating from 1792-95. Thirty miles later, Table Rock Mountain displays a barren rock dome rising dramatically to 3,124 feet out of the Carolina Piedmont. A sign warning of sharp turns and narrow shoulders enticed me to take U.S. Route 178 into North Carolina. This road must serve as South Carolina’s Tail of the Dragon, and I could envision moonshiners making their runs along here back in the day.

Hunting Island Lighthouse

There’s no elevator service to the top of the 132-foot lighthouse on Hunting Island.

I returned to South Carolina via U.S. Route 276, which brought me by Caesars Head, a rocky escarpment rising 2,000 feet above the Piedmont, offering a 180-degree panorama that included Table Rock and the highest peaks in the state. Shortly after turning onto State Route 11, I stopped a Cendy’s Café, with good breakfast and lunch fare. I dropped off Route 11 to follow county roads that led me to Campbell’s Covered Bridge, the last remaining one in the state. Idyllic parkland and trails surround this site.

Back on Route 11, I crossed Interstate 26 and passed the fields and orchards of Strawberry Hill as I entered peach country near Gaffney. On either side of Gaffney are two significant Revolutionary War battle sites, Cowpens and Kings Mountain. At both is where “overmountain” backcountry men of the Carolinas stopped the northward march of the British and turned the tide on England’s attempt to conquer the South, leading soon thereafter to Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Roads leading into and around Kings Mountain are especially nice for cruising.

Charleston’s Ravenel Bridge

Charleston’s Ravenel Bridge represents one of the longest cable-stay designs in North America.

Roads get a little congested between the city of Rock Hill and greater metropolitan Charlotte to the northeast. I shook loose and found solace at Landsford Canal State Park along the banks of the Catawba River. Merchants of the 19th century bypassed the shoals and rapids of the Catawba by using canals, culverts and stone bridges that are still visible at this site.

East of Lancaster, State Route 9 turns more rural as I breezed through agricultural land, passing clumps of heather and groves of palmetto. The Perdue chicken plant and numerous fireworks stalls are highlights of Dillon. At Green Sea I made a decision. I determined there were 20 miles of expressway from there to North Myrtle Beach. I don’t apologize for concluding my circuit of South Carolina and turning north to avoid the place.

(This article The Real South Carolina was published in the February 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)

Abbeville South Carolina

Brick streets gird the town square in historically preserved Abbeville.

South Carolina Map, Bill Tipton

Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com

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